It’s Lonely at the Top

by Sara Hinkle

I have long considered myself an extrovert, bolstered by several rounds of MBTI results and my personal experiences. I’m a social person, I appreciate situations where I can collaborate with people, and I draw my energy from being around others. This applies not only to my personal life, but to my professional life as well. At my very first student affairs job as an area coordinator, I had fellow ACs who were hired at the same time that I was. Their jobs were slightly different from mine, but we were peers and contemporaries. I appreciated the experience of being able to consult with them, share ideas, and (occasionally) commiserate about the joys and frustrations of being a live-in professional. I worked at a tiny institution where the staff was lean, but many new professionals have a wealth of peers within their institution at their similar professional level with whom to interact.

As I’ve moved up the student affairs ladder, the pool of people with which I could consult and confide has dwindled. When supervising staff, it’s inappropriate for me to discuss specific staff issues with my supervisees. Though I’ve generally had supportive supervisors, I have always tried to be respectful of my bosses’ schedule and realized that they didn’t always have the time to process through every issue. And if the issue was related to my boss, the matter became even stickier with regard to who I could speak with. In addition, every institution has its politics, so choosing the right people to trust and confide in can be complicated. As a current assistant vice president for student affairs, connecting with others at my similar level and developing social connections can be a challenge.

Another aspect of this is, as you rise to higher levels of authority, you sometimes have to make decisions that make you unpopular. Sometimes you’re privy to information that you can’t always share with those you supervise, which can make you the subject of gossip or disdain for particular expectations you’ve set or decisions you’ve made. One vice chancellor commented that he missed being a party to gossip because, “if anything the gossip is about you…I can’t experience the university as a native” (Gill, 2010). Suffice it to say, it’s lonely at the top!

Now this is a phenomenon that can affect men and women alike. However, it can be particularly sticky for women, who continue to be underrepresented in leadership roles both within and outside of higher education. For example, while there is gender parity among senior student affairs officers (Wesaw & Sponsler, 2014), only about 25% of college presidents are women, and about only about 29% of full professor positions are held by women (Ward & Eddy, 2013). Outside of higher education, women comprise 20% of Congress (Sarah, 2013), 15% of executive officers, 34% of physicians and surgeons, and 15% of equity law partners (Warner, 2014). So while social isolation within the workplace can occur for both genders, it may be especially prevalent among women, who not only are unable to find professional peers, but are unable to find peers who are like them and might be able to better relate to their issues and experiences.

Now some might argue that social networks are not necessary or appropriate in a professional setting and should be left to the personal realm, but I could not disagree more with this sentiment. We have long taught our students the value of career networking, and this applies to us as well. I often think of the stereotypical “good old boys network,” where men informally conduct business and settle deals over friendly rounds of golf, and perhaps some refreshment at the 19th hole. This was a space that typically excluded women. It’s important that women have their own spaces for networking. According to McCarthy in Girlfriends in High Places (2004),

[P]rofessional networks can enhance individual career prospects while enabling women to work together to tackle workplace inequality. Women’s professional networks can provide the kind of confidence-building support which men are good at providing for each other through their informal networks.

She goes on to say,

Through their ability to connect with other women, networks disrupt patterns of social connectivity at work that have for so long privileged men, and in doing so provide a new way to alter the balance of power between the sexes.

Building professional social networks can be one approach to opening the pipeline and bolstering more women into top leadership roles. But how do we create those networks and find professional social outlets in a shallow pool? I don’t have all the answers here (and would welcome your thoughts on this in the comments), but I do have a few suggestions of things that have worked for me:

1) Getting involved with professional associations:  Over the years, I’ve been involved with many different professional associations, though ACPA (American College Personnel Association) has become my professional organization of choice. Attending annual meeting and conventions can be a great way to reconnect with former colleagues and classmates. But through my involvement and leadership in these associations, I’ve also developed great connections with people with whom I never worked or attended school. These various connections have led to some interesting opportunities and projects (such as the Women’s Leadership Book Club that emerged into this blog, as described by Jennifer Keup in a previous post). I always look forward to the conference calls that dot my calendar, scheduled to discuss the latest writing project or presentation, but which will inevitably involve some supportive professional/personal dialogue.

2) Looking outside my department or division:  My role as academic affairs liaison has given me the opportunity to connect with many colleagues outside of student affairs. I’m slowly building relationships with some women (and men) who I really like and trust. The beauty of these relationships is that these people are not necessarily ingrained in the politics of my department, and so it’s easier to speak more candidly about my experiences, as well as helpful to gain an outside perspective.

3) Connecting with my junior colleagues:  I chair or serve on various division-wide committees, which gives me many opportunities to connect with some of my junior-level colleagues. While they are not my peers, and there are limits to what I can discuss with these colleagues (as I mentioned above), I feel there is a lot I can gain from my interactions with these staff members. For example, many of these colleagues are newly out of graduate school, and it’s very likely that they’re better-versed in the current higher education/student affairs literature and data than I am, as they’ve just spent the past couple years immersed within it. They also are typically on the front lines with students and have more ongoing direct contact with them than I do. Listening to them and their ideas and perspectives can make me a more effective professional as I strive to build skills that will propel me to the next level. However, since my role as assistant vice president can make me intimidating to these colleagues, I have to work to make myself accessible and approachable to them, through authenticity, and sometimes, vulnerability, as Jodi Koslow Martin recommends in a previous post. For example, I’ve had to encourage some junior staff to address me by my first name rather than “Dr. Hinkle.”

Developing these professional social networks helps nourish the extrovert in me, gives me confidence, energy, and enthusiasm for my work, and ultimately, makes me a better professional. Yes, it can be lonely at the top, but I’m working to combat this through my own mechanisms. However, higher education institutions should be more intentional about connecting women and other underrepresented groups with peers, mentors, and resources that can assist them in reaching their professional goals.

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References

Gill, J. (2008, April 10) It’s not lonely at the top, but it is strange, v-c confesses. The Times Higher Education. Retrieved from: http://www.timeshighereducation.co.uk/401373.article.

McCarthy, H. (2004). Girlfriends in High Places: How women’s networks are changing the workplace. London: Hendy Banks. Retrieved from: http://www.demos.co.uk/files/girlfriendsinhighplaces.pdf?1240939425.

Sarah, L. (2013, April 2) Why Are There So Few Female College Presidents? bitchmedia. Retrieved from: http://bitchmagazine.org/post/why-are-there-so-few-women-college-presidents-feminism.

Ward, K. & Eddy, P.L. (2013, December 9). Women and Academic Leadership: Leaning Out. The Chronicle of Higher Education. Retrieved from: http://chronicle.com/article/WomenAcademic-Leadership-/143503/.

Warner, J. (2014, March 7). Fact Sheet: The Women’s Leadership Gap: Women’s Leadership by the Numbers. Center for American Progress. Retrieved from: http://www.americanprogress.org/issues/women/report/2014/03/07/85457/fact-sheet-the-womens-leadership-gap/.

Wesaw, A.J. & Sponsler, B.A. (2014). The Chief Student Affairs Officer: Responsibilities, Opinions, and Professional Pathways. National Association of Student Personnel Administrators (NASPA) Retrieved from: http://www.naspa.org/rpi/reports/csaocensus

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